I've been to Cambridge dozens of times, but invariably stayed in and around the city centre, or headed a bit north. So for my latest trip I headed a bit south, taking advantage of the unseasonably springlike weather, exploring a famous village, a growing suburb and a world famous biomedical campus. Bumping into one of the ten best-selling British authors of all time was an unexpected bonus.[11 photos][map]
Most visitors to Cambridge know The Backs, the serene punting channel to the rear of King's College. But few keep walking up the Cam, past greens, fens and commons, to escape the city. You have to know where you're going, across the Lammas Field, through the Paradise Nature Reserve and on down a footpath at the far end of a smart residential street. But Cambridge's residents and student community know, for this is their escape route to a default constitutional upriver: a mile or so through the meadows, some refreshment at the far end, then back again to exercise it off.
Grantchester Meadows are long, thin and officially owned by King's College. One side is bounded by the meandering river and the other by a straighter, higher tarmac path, ideal for cycling. Those in less of a hurry follow the river, unless it's too muddy, which thankfully at the weekend it never quite was. The lower path is intermittently segregated by narrow footbridges across squelchy inlets, although never allowing passage to the opposite bank. It's ideal dogwalking or picnicking territory, in both cases especially when the meadow's seasonal herd of cattle aren't on the loose. Expect a highly educated level of overheard conversation en route. I wasn't expecting to find a Sikh family pouring a family member's ashes into the river, nor a lone canoeist trying his best to keep a reverent distance, but that's the eternal allure of the Cam.
The village at the end of the 'Grantchester Grind' is small, scenic and ultimately medieval. It's also very famous, most recently because ITV based a series of murder mysteries here, which probably explains why I spotted a rotund man having his photo taken next to the village sign. You can see the televisual appeal - a nucleus of thatched (and unthatched) cottages, various bespoke detached properties, a riverside location, a well-hidden council estate and several pubs. No village of this size needs four pubs, let alone a walk-in gin distillery, but their taps and covers survive on a steady flow of incomers.
Grantchester came to national prominence a century ago thanks to the poet Rupert Brooke, who lodged at The Old Vicarage for a short time while studying at the university. His 1912 poem compared life abroad in Germany with sylvan times in the village, with "a bosky wood, a slumbrous stream, and little kindly winds that creep round twilight corners, half asleep." Rupert's reputation was made by writing about the war that claimed his life, less than one year in, and it's poignant to find his name inscribed on the war memorial outside St Maryand St Andrew'schurch.
To answer two of his most famous questions...
• "Stands the Church clock at ten to three?" Twice a day.
• "And is there honey still for tea?" Yes, at the tearoom.
The tearoom making the most of Brooke's reputation is a 19th century original based in an orchard, called The Orchard. You too can sit outdoors amid the fruit trees where Brooke and his fellow students took tea, or sit inside the original pavilion with a plate of cakes. You may also get to queue for absolutely ages at the servery door, which I suspect is most likely at the height of summer but it turns out unseasonably fine Februaries have the same effect. Whilst the overall rustic atmosphere was spot on, the twelve-point health and safety notices posted up beside all entrances read somewhat joylessly. The small adjacent Rupert Brooke museum has closed.
As for the Old Vicarage, for the last 40 years it's been owned by the famous author/politician/criminal Jeffrey Archer and his fragrant wife Mary. It's large but not enormous, secluded but not hidden, and surrounded by well-tended gardens liberally scattered with sculptures. I liked the flock of sheep amid his silver birches, was less enamoured by the statue of Rupert Brooke in his turning circle and wasn't convinced by the black horse on his private island.
There's a twist in my tale, because five minutes up the road I saw a short paunchy grey-haired man wearing a white cricket jumper walking towards me. It turned out to be the very man himself, heading home to his weekend bolthole with a folder in hand. I suspect he'd been to the pub for lunch, because he can't have been returning from the village shop because there isn't one, and he was smiling. It's a good life in Grantchester, beyond reasonable doubt.
Brooke isn't the only Cambridge-educated poet to be commemorated around here. Lord Byron was known to pop down to a shady spot above Grantchester to bathe in the Cam, a site now named in his honour, and a local nature reserve to boot. It's still a lovely slice of riverside, a long tongue of sycamore facing a wall of reedy branches in the first itch of spring. Ironically the least attractive part of the reserve is Byron's Pool itself, into which has been slotted a modern sluice and weir, so best walk past that fast and return to the splendour of the watery woodland.
Grantchester's neighbouring village hasn't been quite so successful at holding its identity, first touched and now enveloped by Cambridge's suburban sprawl. A central triangle with church and cottages survives, as does a privately owned stately home, but elsewhere are housing estates of various vintages, many of them particularly recent. The city council decommissioned large areas of Green Belt a decade ago, reasoning that well-connected land close to the railway and the M11 would be no great agricultural loss. From Byron's Pool, Trumpington Meadows resembles a row of comprehensive schools across the skyline. Facing Hobson's Park is a string of three storey townhouses, behind which rise densely-crammed ultra-modern flats. South Trumpington is the new commuter frontier.
Nobody's quite got round to building Cambridge South station here, though it is planned, so connectivity relies on cycleways and the fabled guided busway. This was built relatively recently along the alignment of the former Bedford-Cambridge railway, and sweeps into the suburb as far as the Park and Ride hub. The M11 and the university's array of radio telescopes block further progress, which is one reason why completing the new East-West 'Varsity' railway is proving so intractable. At least the mainline to London survives, and immediately beyond that an even more futuristic landscape is shooting up...
First there was Addenbrooke's, the acclaimed teaching hospital which moved to this greenfield site in the 1960s. It's still the key player, even if its functional sprawl is increasingly upstaged by more remarkable architecture around the perimeter. The spiky grey building with tapered roof vents is the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, opened in 2013. The vast glass triangular-ish fortress, not yet complete, will be the global research and development facility for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The oval tower coated in electric blue is about to become the new site for acclaimed transplantery PapworthHospital, whose staff and patients start moving in during the week after Easter. The enormous stripy yellow cuboid is in fact a multi-storey carpark, because transport options to out-of-town sites are never 100% sustainable. And if you have your own biochemical research facility in need of a prime location and a well-qualified workforce, there's still plenty of space on campus along Dame Mary Archer Way. It's world class, is Cambridge (South).